Roslyn Pope, 84, Dies; Her Manifesto Helped Fuel Civil Rights Fight
Roslyn Pope, who as a senior at Spelman College in Atlanta wrote a 1960 manifesto that set the stage for dramatic advances in civil rights in the city and inspired generations of activists around the country, died on Jan. 19 in Arlington, Texas. She was 84.
Spelman College confirmed the death.
The Atlanta Student Movement, of which Dr. Pope was a founding member, was one of several civil rights groups to spring up across the South in the months after a group of Black students in Greensboro, N.C., captured national attention in February 1960 with their sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Atlanta had a reputation as a relatively progressive place, with the unofficial designation of “the city too busy to hate.” But as Dr. Pope documented in her manifesto, which she wrote with help from Julian Bond, a future chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., Atlanta was in fact riven by racial injustices: unfair housing laws, unequal access to health care, racist law enforcement and persistent school segregation despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
“Every normal being wants to walk the earth with dignity and abhors any and all proscriptions placed upon him because of race or color,” the statement read. “In essence, this is the meaning of the sit-down protests that are sweeping this nation today.”
The manifesto, entitled “An Appeal for Human Rights,” appeared in three Atlanta newspapers and was reprinted in The New York Times, The Nation and The Harvard Crimson. Senator Jacob K. Javits, Republican of New York, had it read into the Congressional Record.
In their detailed elucidation of Atlanta’s racial inequities, Dr. Pope and Mr. Bond made clear that the students rallying behind the manifesto were interested in more than just desegregating lunch counters, though they achieved that in 1961.
The document’s principles helped shape the ideas that propelled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had its headquarters in Atlanta, and became a template for anyone working toward racial equity in America, then and into the 21st century.
“Its impact and significance lie in the fact that the areas that students focused on in the appeal, back in 1960, are of enduring relevance,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a historian at Harvard and the author of “Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement” (2011), said in a phone interview.
Dr. Brown-Nagin said she teaches the “Appeal” in her courses on law and social change, in part because it illustrates that the civil rights movement was motivated not just by passion but also by ideas.
“The ‘Appeal’ shows that the students predicated their action on an intellectual justification,” she said, “and I think that’s really important.”
Roslyn Elizabeth Pope was born on Oct. 29, 1938, in Atlanta to Rogers Pope, a postal worker, and Ruth (Singleton) Pope, a homemaker. Her father was active in his union, and was so proud of his daughter’s role in writing the manifesto that he mailed copies to his friends at Christmas.
Roslyn’s future in leadership was apparent early. She was elected class president throughout her time at Booker T. Washington High School, and in 1951 was selected to represent Georgia at a national Girl Scout encampment. She was the only Black girl out of the 50 young people in attendance.
At Spelman, she won a Merrill Scholarship, which allowed her to spend a year in Paris studying piano and French. Her time abroad exposed her to life outside of the South’s racial hierarchies.
“I consider that year as the removal of the shackles and my budding realization that the way I had lived the past 20 years had been based on a theory that I was less than human, and that all Black people were less than human,” she said in a 2016 interview with Robert Cohen, a historian at New York University.
The day after she returned to Atlanta, in February 1960, she was drinking coffee at a diner when two students from Morehouse College, Mr. Bond and Lonnie King, approached her.
“Have you heard about the guys at Greensboro?” she recalled one of them asking. She said she had.
“We’re going to start a movement here,” they said.
“It was as if my prayers had been answered,” she told Dr. Cohen. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Where’s the movement I need to attach myself to?’”
She had been elected student body president in absentia, which made her the de facto spokeswoman for the Spelman contingent. More students came from other historically Black institutions in Atlanta: Morehouse, Clark College, Morris Brown College, Atlanta University and the Interdenominational Theological Center.
They began planning sit-ins, and word soon reached the presidents of their respective institutions. Atlanta’s Black establishment was markedly conservative and often wary of youth activism; better, they thought, for the students to keep their heads down and get their degrees.
Three students from each school met with the six presidents. At first, the adults tried telling them to stop. When that failed, they tried to buy time by insisting that the students publish a program outlining their grievances and goals. They even offered to buy ad space in the local newspapers.
Dr. Pope and Mr. Bond borrowed a typewriter from one of Ms. Pope’s mentors at Spelman, Howard Zinn, a history professor and progressive activist who later found fame as an author; he even let them work at his apartment. Ms. Pope wrote the first draft by hand, using data Mr. Bond had accumulated. He then typed it up, and they proofed it together. They made their deadline.
She participated in subsequent sit-ins and protests, which brought out scores of Spelman students. But her active role in the movement ended with her graduation in spring 1960 with a degree in music. She moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she married John Walker and taught in the city’s public schools.
She is survived by her daughters, Rhonda Walker and Donna Walker; two grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a brother, Webster Pope.
Dr. Pope later studied piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music; received a master’s degree in English from Georgia State University; and in 1974 received a doctorate in humanities from Syracuse University.
She taught music and religion at Pennsylvania State University for two years. In 1976 she moved to Dallas, where she taught at Bishop College, a historically Black institution.
And while she did not achieve the national renown of fellow leaders like Mr. Bond or Mr. King, she was revered around Atlanta as the eloquent intellectual architect of that city’s civil rights revolution.
As Dr. Cohen said in a phone interview: “You could think of her as the Thomas Jefferson of the Atlanta movement.”